Oddjects No.1

I’ve been running my mystery object for over three years now and I’ve decided to add another kind of post in order to share some of the odd and interesting objects that I come across as I work in the collections of the Horniman Museum.

To share these specimens I’ve chosen the name ‘Oddjects’ as a portmanteau of ‘Odd’ and ‘Objects’. Here’s the first:


This happens to be a Wolffish (Anarhichas sp.) specimen that was a mystery object back in 2010, but here I just want to use the specimen to capture the imagination and spark discussion rather than provide much in-depth interpretation.

What does this make you think of?

I hope you enjoy the Oddjects I plan to share – if you do I would heartily recommend also checking out the Twitter and Tumblr feeds for the Horniman’s collections review projects as they also share some great objects.

Friday mystery object #168 answer

On Friday I gave you this specimen to identify:

As I suspected, the distinctive shape of the skull makes this specimen easily recognisable as an owl (family Strigiformes). However, there are a couple of hundred species of owl, so there were plenty of possibilities to make a more specific identification.

This specimen has quite a distinctive slope to the forehead in profile view and a very clear groove down the midline of the cranium, which combined with the length of around 58mm narrowed down the likely suspects considerably.

Jake was the first to suggest the species I think it’s most likely to be, with palaeosam suggesting the other possible option and RH cautiously suggesting both. This skull belongs to an owl in the genus  Continue reading

Friday mystery object #166 answer

On Friday I gave you this great skull from the Grant Museum of Zoology to identify:

A big list of you (Mieke RothJakemcarnall, Anthony wilkes, 23thorns, Cam Weir, henstridgesj, Rhea, leigh and Robin) managed to work out what this specimen was from and there were some really interesting explanations about how you came to your conclusions in response to Steven D. Garber’s comment:

Now, I’d like it even more if people explained why this skull looks the way it does.

This is a really interesting thing to consider, as it underlies the process of recognition and identification. As a biologist I might start by saying that the lacrimal foramina is on the edge of the orbit (as henstridgesj pointed out) which is indicative of a marsupial and that the dentition is indicative of a carnivorous mammal that isn’t a member of the placental Carnivora as it lacks carnassials, plus the dental formula appears to be ‘primitive’ from the photo ?.1.3.4/?.1.2.4 which narrows down the possibilities to just a few marsupial carnivores, and given the scale of the skull there is just one that fits the bill.

However, if I’m honest I’d say that the overall shape and robust structure of this specimen is very similar to specimens I’ve seen before belonging to the  Continue reading

Friday mystery object #165 answer

On Friday I gave you this object from the Horniman collections to identify:

It’s fairly obvious that it’s a claw, but the question is what is it a claw from?

This claw was originally identified as being from a big cat of some kind, but it isn’t the right shape. A big cat claw has a thicker body with an acute sharp point – as with this Tiger claw:

Although different from the Tiger claw, the mystery claw has several similarities – mostly the fact that it’s laterally flattened. This suggests it’s from a mammal since birds have more rounded talons, as mentioned by henstridgesj. The mystery claw has a strong and long curve, that looks like an adaptation for climbing. The large size narrows it down to just a few possibilities and the little bump in the middle of the inside edge is quite distinctive.

There is a handy picture with a variety of claws that Carlos G found, which proved to be useful:

Robin and Carlos G managed to get it down to the right family and palaeosam and henstridgesj identified it to species. It’s the claw of an  Continue reading

Friday mystery object #164 answer

On Friday I gave you this object to identify:

It was a bit of a tricky one, since a few vertebrae aren’t a huge amount to go on. However, the large size helps narrow it down, as do the distinctively long neural spines.

As Ric Morris and henstridgesj spotted, the vertebrae are very compressed, not providing much scope for movement, suggesting an animal that relies on a rigid backbone for support and transferring large forces. This is not something you see in whales (at least not after the cervical and first few thoracic vertebrae), since water supports their weight and they maintain some flexibility in their spine for changing their orientation in the water when swimming. That leaves us with very few terrestrial mammals big enough to have vertebrae of this size – particularly considering that these vertebrae are from a juvenile animal.

The neural spines are long, but not laterally flattened. This suggests that they are not from a large Buffalo, Hippopotamus or Rhinoceros, since all of these animals have their neural spines orientated as a dorsal blade. The only animal of the right size that has dorso-ventrally flattened neural spines in the mid-thoracic region (that I’m aware of) is the  Continue reading

Friday mystery object #163 answer

On Friday I gave you this object from the collections of the Horniman Museum to identify:

The specimen had lost its label at some point in the past, so I had to identify it myself and was hoping to get your opinion on what it might be.

When I first saw it I noticed an odd scar running diagonally across the top of the cranium, which made me wonder if it was some kind of marine bird with an odd salt glad. Then I realised that the scar indicated something else entirely, which gave me the clue I needed to make the identification.

It seems that most of you also noticed the scar and came to similar conclusions, so  23thorns, cackhandedkate, Ric Morris, Jake and Steven D. Garber all recognised it as a woodpecker of some sort and given the length of the skull rachel and henstridgesj arrived at the same conclusion about species as I did, which is the  Continue reading

Friday mystery object #163

I have another bird skull for you to identify this week – sorry if all the bird skulls are getting repetitive, but that’s what I’ve been working on!

This specimen had no identification and had me stumped for a little while, but I now think I’ve worked out what it might be and I’d appreciate your input to see if you agree:

As usual, you can put comments, questions and suggestions below and I’ll do my best to respond. Enjoy!

Friday mystery object #161 answer

On Friday I gave you this bird skull to identify:

Most of you managed to identify it pretty easily – Robin suggested something in the right family, while Ric Morris, henstridgesj, Matthew King and Jake all managed to work it out to species. This is the skull of a  Continue reading

Rhinos at risk

I know I’ve discussed the situation regarding rhino horn before, but I recently had an article published in NatSCA News that goes into a bit more detail about the thefts of rhino horn from collections in Europe, the current status of rhino populations in the wild and the huge increase in levels of poaching. I thought it might be useful to share the article a bit more widely by making it available here: The Horns of a Dilemma: The Impact of the Illicit Trade in Rhino Horn.

rhino-dehorned via everything.co.za


Normally NatSCA News articles are published online a year or so after they are published in hard copy, but the article I wrote will be out of date by then and I will have to spend the next year or so getting annoyed by newspaper articles talking about the market for horn as an aphrodisiac (which is nonsense), without being able to easily share the results of my research into the subject.

One element of my research has been a map that shows the places in Europe from which rhino horn has been stolen in the last 18 months or so (I will keep updating it):

The situation for rhinos is bad and it’s getting worse.

Friday mystery object #97 answer

Apologies for the lack of response to questions last Friday, I was travelling and had limited access to the internet.

Excuses aside, I was impressed by the overall accuracy of the answers received about what this skull belonged to:

Everyone spotted that it was a carnivore and most of you identified this as being the skull of a mustelid, but no-one seems to have got this identification spot-on (perhaps my stinking clue was a bit too vague). Suggestions ranged a fair bit and uncertainty was rife, as shown in this word cloud of the comments:

Perhaps unsurprisingly given the clue, Skunks were suggested quite a lot as were Civets and Polecats/Ferrets (which are indistinguishable from each other on the basis of the skull, since Ferrets are just domesticated Polecats).

This suggestion of Polecat is pretty much there, although the specimen is not the standard European Polecat Mustela putorius rather it is an African mustelid known as the  Continue reading

Noisy neighbours

I just thought I’d mention my new noisy neighbours at work – a couple of Ring-necked parakeets have set up a nest in an old Greater-spotted woodpecker hole next to my office:

Parakeet nest hole

The squawking is loud and frequent, but it’s novel having these colourful birds just a few metres away!


One of the new neighbours

Greetings Scientopians and Happy Birthday Charles Darwin

I’m going to be at Scientopia as a guest blogger for the next couple of weeks, so I hope you enjoy my scribblings about my interests and my work as a scientist in a cultural institution – an incongruous but rewarding experience.

The Friday Mystery Object will continue as usual and I will mirror much of the content here. My first post is just a brief introduction and a belated ‘Happy two hundred and second Birthday’ to Charles Darwin for yesterday – check it out here.



Skull of maneating tiger, Horniman Museum NH.74.11.19

Tool use, technology and cooperation have allowed humans to claw their way to the top of the predatory heap. As a species we can and do kill anything and everything. Sometimes we kill for food, sometimes for profit and sometimes for fun. Very occasionally we also kill for self protection.

Humans have been largely off the menu for quite some time – and although people are still killed and eaten by large predators with some regularity (perhaps a hundred or so a year), humans are not the first prey of choice for any species of carnivore – it’s just that some individuals within a species will develop a taste for human. When there are attacks on people it will usually be because there has been a blurring of borders between a human habitat and the habitat of the predator. The most obvious example of this is when humans are occasionally taken by sharks whilst in the sea or by crocodiles in lakes and rivers.

Staying on land, the blurring of borders between predators and people is linked with habitat loss  and the encroachment of human development, agriculture and habitation, with the associated issues of deforestation and re-purposing of land. The development of infrastructure brings humans into wilderness, such as with the Tsavo bridge project in Kenya, where a pair of lions terrorised construction workers for ten months in 1898, eating about 35 and possibly killing around 135.

As habitat is lost, predators are faced with fewer natural prey and they are thrust into close proximity with domesticated animals – with obvious consequences.  Where you have livestock being killed you also have people trying to protect their livelihood and this is where the conflict really heats up, taking its toll on both the people and the predators. There can be no winners. Continue reading

Friday mystery object #17

I can’t believe it’s Friday again – it’s all a bit hectic at the moment, so apologies for the late posting of this week’s mystery object.

 Here’s a rather odd object from the Horniman’s collections – any idea what it might be?


As usual, post your answers below and if you have any questions I’ll do my best to answer them!

Friday mystery object #14 answer

On Friday I gave you a bit of a change from museum specimens and presented you with this:

mystery14bEveryone managed to get the identification to at least within the Order level (it’s in the Orthoptera), which is good going when dealing with insects. The hard bit came down to whether it was a cricket or grasshopper. Now, the photo does not show the most important feature for distinguish between these two types of orthopteran: it’s the antennae length that gives it away (grasshoppers have short antennae, crickets have long antennae). Colour is not really important (sorry KateKatV).

That said, the vivid green colour, speckled appearance, lack of wings and characteristics shape of the ovipositor (curved bit at the back which means this is a female) are a give-away for those who are familiar with this particular beastie (and for those who use Google image to help with their identifications). It is in fact a Continue reading

Friday mystery object #14

Last week I let Harrison pick an object that proved a bit too difficult (although perhaps I could have been more generous with the clues I gave…). This week I am giving you something that is actually alive and commonly found in gardens in the UK – so it should be a doddle to identify:


Simple questions – what species is it (binomial name gets you kudos) and what gender is it?

Answers in the comments section below – but I’m afraid I won’t be able to respond to comments this week. Good luck!

Friday mystery object #13 answer

Crumbs, it appears that last Friday’s object stumped everyone! Harrison certainly chose a difficult one…

mystery13aSmallCasserole came closest, asking:

Is it antler or horn?

but my response:

Antler or horn that thick?

was perhaps too ambiguous – because there is a horn out there that is this thick, that of a Continue reading

Friday mystery object #13

Today’s mystery object has been selected by a very helpful work experience volunteer who was assisting me in the collections yesterday, so my thanks to Harrison! He is rather more cruel than me, so there’s no multiple choice on this – we just want you to see if you can work out what it is. I will attempt to answer any questions (time permitting) since our broadband seems to have been sorted out at home.

So here it is:


Continue reading